I'VE JUST SPENT A FEW hours on-line with the 900 industry, and I know I speak for all Americans, regardless of intelligence, when I say, "Is this a great country, or what?" What I encountered was the equivalent of mental bubble gum: generic information so vague as to be useless, information readily available free from other sources, and "entertainment" aimed at the level of a 12-year-old. On second thought, I'll take back that last statement. I'm not in the habit of insulting 12-year-olds.
OK, I'll admit it; I didn't try any of the sex lines. And I didn't call for any fan club information, mostly because I don't have any idea who -- or what -- these groups are. Vanilla Ice? Say, whatever happened to Simon and Garfunkel?
Here's a sample of what you can punch up on your telephone keypad:
Horoscopes. I called two horoscope lines. Sydney Omarr, at (900) 740-3999, advised me to put the past aside and seize the day. At $2 per minute, no less. Jeane Dixon Horoscopes, at (900) 988-2222, charged only 95 cents a minute and -- bless her heart -- offered a kill message before the toll charges started running. Jeane suggested that my "power and influence are growing" and urged me to exercise regularly and eat sensibly.
Entertainment. At the rate of a dollar a minute, a character named Gastroman [(900) 454-3350] regaled me with an assortment of intestinal sound effects, any of which I could have listened to for free just by entering a crowded elevator. At (900) 246-7858, a noisy and irritating Dial-an-Insult offered "humor" on the level of "Your shower head must be spewing raw sewage." (No, but I know something else that is.)
Automobile prices. The Auto Priceline, at (900) 741-CARS, asked me a series of questions about the make, model, age and condition of my car and the options it carries. Within minutes it accurately appraised the vehicle's resale value. A similar service, Used Car Prices, at (900) 446-0500, is marketed by Consumer Reports and the American Automobile Association. It, too, came up with a reasonable estimate in a reasonable stretch of time. Price for both services was $1.50 a minute. Still, I could have gotten the information free of charge from a number of public sources, including the Enoch Pratt Library.
Crossword puzzles. Dialing (900) 896-2884 bought me, at the cost of 95 cents a minute, five clues to the current crossword puzzle in TV Guide. For 75 cents for the first minute and 50 cents each additional minute, I was able to call (900) 884-CLUE for help with three answers to the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle. But let's face it -- any adult who needs help with five TV Guide clues probably has the I.Q. score of aluminum siding anyway, and any adult who needs help with only three clues on the New York Times Sunday puzzle is out of my mental league on the other end of the scale.
Health. The PMS Line (900) USA-PMSS offered a kill message and then charged $1.50 for the first minute and 79 cents for each additional minute for recorded information about premenstrual syndrome. What I heard was vague, general information that I already knew. I could have gotten more detail and more candid advice by hanging around the lunchroom at work.